‘Not a proper job’: designer Tom Dixon

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I think I get bored with myself before other people do ‘ I am constantly reinventing myself, but not consciously ‘ trying to do things differently. I still see myself very much at the beginning of my career ‘ fresh and up and coming!

With a global design reputation and some impressive awards to his name, Tom Dixon, 47, could hardly be described as ‘up and coming’. That he sees himself as such is a key to the Tom Dixon persona ‘ art school drop-out, rock musician, biker, welder, designer, businessman ‘ a constant morphing in to something else that is more about being challenged by the ‘becoming’ than the accolades of ‘achieving’.

In Sydney late last year to present the fourth Bombay Sapphire Design Discovery Award and a lecture at the Powerhouse, London-based Dixon was an articulate, if travel-weary, interviewee, eager to differentiate his career from that of many other designers:

Most designers follow a specific path that is laid out by the industry. You are either a craftsperson or you go to work for big companies like Moroso, Cappellini or Vitra and you become a ‘service industry’. I decided consciously not to do that in various stages.

Like some of the most successful contemporary designers (Australian Marc Newson is a good example) Dixon came to design through the direct experience of working with materials; in his case salvaged industrial scrap. Like many designers, too, Dixon’s break came when one of his early designs was put into production by a big-name manufacturer ‘ the S-chair by Cappellini.

But by the mid 1990s Dixon’s career started to diverge significantly from that of most of his colleagues. In 1994 he established Eurolounge to manufacture his Jack light using relatively new rotation-moulding technology, and in 1998 he took on the job of head designer for Terence Conran’s upmarket homewares chain Habitat. For a designer with a bit of a reputation as a maverick the move to the business world ‘shocked his followers’. For Dixon, however, it was yet another opportunity to reinvent himself:

Frankly I think there’s more space to be challenging in business. All the best businesses are creative. Richard Branson or Terence Conran ‘ they’re creative ‘ that’s how they get ahead.

Today, Dixon’s corporate connections stretch from his role as creative director of Habitat, to director of his own company TOM DIXON and the esteemed furniture manufacturing company Artek. He sees his involvement in Artek, which was established in the 1930s to produce the designs of Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto, as an important base to address issues of sustainability:

Through Artek I’ve got the perfect place for doing things that are more sustainable. Just the fact that Artek products are more durable ‘ still fashionable 70 years later ‘ is a good foundation to start applying some of the things every company has got to be aware of.

Everybody needs to be conscious of the impact they are having. I think its increasingly difficult to have both stances when you are designing things for more consumption and that’s how you make your living. It’s a tough one! Its true we all have too much. We’re all on this treadmill ‘ we’re all victims or perpetrators of this fashionability. That’s where government has to kick in with legislation to make the baseline equal: tax aircraft fuel, legislate on tropical hardwoods, for example.

And therein lies the dilemma confronting designers today: reconciling the pressures to constantly innovate and maintain high market visibility with the inevitable constraints imposed by an ecologically responsible approach to design. It may not be too long before Dixon’s plastics-consuming community events, like the ‘Fresh fat plastic’ extrusion machine of 2001 or the recent Trafalgar Square ‘Great chair grab’, are a phenomenon of the past.

Dixon’s remit to broaden design audiences is one shared by Bombay Sapphire, the company whose global brand has, since the 1990s, very profitably matched its product ‘ gin ‘ with a design-savvy market. In Australia the company has sponsored the Bombay Sapphire Design Discovery Award for four years with generous cash and travel prizes. Seamlessly organised, the competition judging assesses both submitted entries and the designer’s existing body of work. To date the careers of Jon Goulder, Adam Goodrum, Lucas Chirnside and Charles Wilson have undoubtedly been boosted by winning the award, although Tom Dixon disputes the argument that Australian designers are disadvantaged by geographic isolation and a small population:

It’s an honour to be an Australian. It’s the most fantastic place ‘ the best food, best potential for architecture, people are literate and intelligent, they have good quality of life. Twenty million isn’t that small. The map of the world is changing rapidly around us. We are living in very exciting and terrifying times. Technologies exist that make it better to make things close to home again ‘ they’re emerging now. Australia is closer to China than the Italians. There’s the whole of the Pacific rim ‘ it’s not such an unfortunate place to be any more.

So what does this constantly travelling, chameleon designer-cum-businessman-cum entrepreneur do to relax’ In a vibrant shirt worn ‘just for Australia’ Dixon stifles a jetlagged yawn, ‘I think its very relaxing not having a proper job!’

This article was first published in Powerline, autumn 07, the magazine of the Powerhouse Museum.

Tom Dixon
Bombay Sapphire Design Discovery Award
Artek
Habitat